Sunday, February 28, 2010

Seven Currents that are Changing the Global Church

A Breakthrough Book by Fritz Kling details the rapid transitionary forces facing Christianity today

Two rivers meet in Manaus, Brazil, at the turbulent head of the Amazon River. The different-colored tributaries do not give way or merge, but instead strain against their common seam. For ten miles, they share the same channel but remain distinct like oil and water.

Christendom finds itself at just such a murky and perilous juncture. The church is caught between its tried-and-true past and an all-bets-are-off future. Christianity throughout the world is stunning in its scope and spiritual impact, but what is happening to the Church as new technological, promotional, and generational shifts make their unavoidable mark? And what difference does it make for Christians in day-to-day life?

The Meeting of the Waters, a new book by Fritz Kling, identifies seven trends—including migration, machines, and the growing Mercy Generation—having an impact on today’s Global Church. Neither an institution nor a bureaucracy, the global Church is incredibly adaptive and vibrant. It has long been the world’s most effective relief agent, meeting needs across the globe through justice advocacy, material aid, counseling, biblical proclamation, education, and more. But what forces are shaping the global church, and what will it take in this unique place in time for the church to continue its mission of hope? Equal parts travelogue, character study, and global documentary, this breakthrough book seeks to answer these important questions and is written for anyone eager to make a difference in a changing world.

Kling’s experience as a foundation executive who has researched and directed investments to Christian ministries around the world has taught him how to “connect the dots”—to understand how forces secular and sacred, ancient and modern, spiritual and physical, domestic and international have informed Christian ministry. Over the past eight years, Kling has met with more than a thousand indigenous church leaders from forty different countries. He has made airlines re-think their frequent flyer programs, bounced through endless van rides, and drunk gallons of Coke and chai in both slums and skyscrapers. Secular commentators have long written about globalization’s wake, but Fritz Kling has witnessed it firsthand—through a Christian lens. The Meeting of the Waters is the byproduct of these experiences and is therefore able to give an original and incredibly well researched perspective on the growing need to understand ministry in a rapidly changing world.

The Meeting of the Waters will be an important addition to the libraries of anyone who wants to make a difference for Christ in a global community. In particular, pastors, mission pastors, missions committees, seminary professors, missionaries, and mission agency employees will find this book a fascinating and useful tool.

About the author: Fritz Kling has spent the past decade in the heart of the global Church, traveling through villages and cities in every corner of the world. In preparation to writing The Meeting of the Waters, Kling spent a year conducting one hour interviews with more than 150 Christian leaders from 19 developing countries. As a foundation executive, he has worked alongside both high-level leaders and grass-roots workers and has an insider’s story to tell. Fritz and his family live in Richmond, VA.

The Meeting of the Waters by Fritz Kling
David C Cook/March 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4347-6484-3/233 pages/softcover/$16.99

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Making Winners for the Long Term

Coached for Life: Making Winners for the Long Term
How the lessons of one winning season lasted a lifetime

What is the legacy of a great coach? When the players of the Great Falls Central Mustangs arrived for the first day of practice in the fall of 1962, they had their sights set on the unlikely goal of the state championship. But what their coaches delivered was far more lasting than a championship ring; it was life-changing truths that transformed these boys into men, instilling character that would span their lifetime.

Coached for Life, by Ed Flaherty and Jack Uldrich, is the true account of how two high school football coaches, Bill Mehrens and John McMahon, molded an undistinguished group of young men not only into state champions but also into men with integrity that would follow them the rest of their lives. The book includes a dramatic 40 year retrospect from the players themselves (including Flaherty, a former team captain) describing how the biblical values as well as the hard earned principles of football instilled in them during the 1962 season continued to shape their lives in positive ways long after they left the football field.

Bobby Bowden, head football coach of the 1993 and 1999 National Champion Florida State University Seminoles, says, “Coached for Life captures the essence of what it means to be a coach. It describes the philosophies that work in the arena of sport and the philosophies that work in life. I recommend it to everyone who wants to succeed in either—or both.”

Great Falls Central High School was a small private Catholic school in Montana, a town made of blue collar working people who held to a strong faith, the same strong current of faith that underscores the lessons of Coached for Life. The authors incorporated the teaching moments from the theology classroom with their teacher, Father Livix, whose forward-thinking, ethical discussions regarding race and equality along with his biblical teaching helped build these men’s character. The 1962 Mustangs went on to distinguish themselves as entrepreneurs, bank presidents, school administrators, multi-million dollar home builders, and even songwriters. Perhaps the greatest testament of the coaches’ lasting influence is the large percentage of players who have followed in their footsteps to become coaches themselves.

Flaherty and Uldrich have organized the life lessons into twelve memorable principles, each illustrated by the true stories of players who have put those lessons into practice. These real life applications include:

· Setting the Bar High: how establishing and fulfilling clear goals shaped Ed Flaherty’s career as the consummate entrepreneur
· Extreme Perseverance: how enduring “hell week” during the 1962 season prepared Dale Roos to survive for five days alone in the jungles of Vietnam
· Responsibility is the One Thing that Cannot be Delegated: how Bruce Campbell broke the cycle of absent fatherhood and stepped up to the plate to parent three young children alone
· Passing the Torch: how the coaches developed a legacy of leadership that continues today

Each chapter concludes with a summary of the key point and a set of thought-provoking discussion questions, making it the perfect vehicle for corporate leadership studies, ministry volunteer meetings, and teacher professional development.

Coached for Life is not just another feel-good football story. Rather, it is an amazing testament to the profound impact that any leader—the coach, the teacher, the boss, the minister, or the parent—can have on someone else’s life, particularly when he or she is leading young people. This book clearly shows that the words and actions of any leader can transform a person, instilling core beliefs that will last a lifetime. With a foreword by the winningest coach in NCAA history, Coached for Life has drawn rave reviews from noted leaders across many fields including the President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, the CEO of RE/MAX International, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the former governor of Montana. Coached for Life provides much-needed encouragement for weary leaders who sometimes wonder if their hard work really makes a difference.

Coached for Life by Ed Flaherty and Jack Uldrich
Bronze Bow Publishing/March 2010
ISBN: 978-0-615-27882-7/383 pages/softcover/$19.95

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Friday, February 26, 2010

A sneek peek at Glaen

Click on book to read the first chapter!

Glaen by Fred R. Lybrand
The Barnabas Agency February 2010
ISBN: 978-0-578-04652-5/softcover/171 pages/$14.99
Website: ~ Blog:
Become a fan of Glaen on Facebook!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wiersbe Bible Study Series

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Wiersbe Bible Study Series – 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon: It's Always Too Soon to Quit!

David C. Cook; New edition (February 1, 2010)

***Special thanks to Audra Jennings of The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***


A man who has given his life to a deep examination of the Word of God, Dr. Warren W. Wiersbe is an internationally known Bible teacher, former pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago and the author of more than 150 books. For over thirty years, millions have come to rely on the timeless wisdom of Dr. Warren W. Wiersbe’s “Be” Commentary series. Dr. Wiersbe’s commentary and insights on Scripture have helped readers understand and apply God’s Word with the goal of life transformation. Dubbed by many as the “pastor’s pastor,” Dr. Wiersbe skillfully weaves Scripture with historical explanations and thought-provoking questions, communicating the Word in such a way that the masses grasp its relevance for today.

Product Details:

List Price: $8.99
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: David C. Cook; New edition (February 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1434765105
ISBN-13: 978-1434765109


Introduction to 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon

Too Soon to Quit!

Timothy was not too happy in his church in Ephesus, and Titus was in a difficult situation on the island of Crete. To both of them, Paul wrote, “Be faithful! It’s always too soon to quit!”

Paul used the Greek word pistos (“faithful”) at least seventeen times in these three letters. The theme runs through each chapter: Be faithful to the Word, be faithful to your task, be faithful to the people to whom you minister. God is faithful! But don’t get the idea that the Pastoral Epistles are only for pastors and other “full-time Christian workers.” These three letters are for every Christian, every church member.

I have added a chapter on Philemon because what Paul wrote to him fits right into the theme of this study. Philemon faced a difficult problem with his runaway slave, Onesimus, and Paul’s counsel encouraged Philemon to be faithful to the Lord in solving that problem.

As you study these letters, I want to help you understand the ministry of the local church and also encourage you to stick with it! If you and I are faithful to the tasks God has given us, then His work will prosper and His name will be glorified. Could we ask for more?

A Note about Paul’s Life

Paul was arrested in Jerusalem around AD 57 and was confined to prison in Caesarea for two years (see Acts 21:19—26:32). Paul’s voyage to Rome to be tried before Caesar started sometime around September AD 59. After a shipwreck and a three-month wait on Malta, he arrived in Rome about

February AD 60 (see Acts 27—28). There he had liberty to minister.

Paul was acquitted of the charges and released. During the two years that followed, he ministered in various places and wrote 1 Timothy and Titus.

About AD 65, he was arrested again but this time put into a dungeon. It was then that he wrote 2 Timothy, his last letter.

The other collected letters, including Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, were written during his first Roman captivity. —Warren W. Wiersbe

How to Use This Study

This study is designed for both individual and small-group use. We’ve divided it into eight lessons—each references one or more chapters in Warren W. Wiersbe’s commentary Be Faithful (second edition, David C. Cook, 2009). While reading Be Faithful is not a prerequisite for going through this study, the additional insights and background Wiersbe offers can greatly enhance your study experience.

The Getting Started questions at the beginning of each lesson offer you an opportunity to record your first thoughts and reactions to the study text. This is an important step in the study process as those “first impressions” often include clues about what it is your heart is longing to discover.

The bulk of the study is found in the Going Deeper questions. These dive into the Bible text and, along with helpful excerpts from Wiersbe’s commentary, help you examine not only the original context and meaning of the verses but also modern application.

Looking Inward narrows the focus down to your personal story. These intimate questions can be a bit uncomfortable at times, but don’t shy away from honesty here. This is where you are asked to stand before the mirror of God’s Word and look closely at what you see. It’s the place to take a good look at yourself in light of the lesson and search for ways in which you can grow in faith.

Going Forward is the place where you can commit to paper those things you want or need to do in order to better live out the discoveries you made in the Looking Inward section. Don’t skip or skim through this. Take the time to really consider what practical steps you might take to move closer to Christ. Then share your thoughts with a trusted friend who can act as an encourager and accountability partner.

Finally, there is a brief Seeking Help section to close the lesson. This is a reminder for you to invite God into your spiritual-growth process. If you choose to write out a prayer in this section, come back to it as you work through the lesson and continue to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance as you discover God’s will for your life.

Tips for Small Groups

A small group is a dynamic thing. One week it might seem like a group of close-knit friends. The next it might seem more like a group of uncomfortable strangers. A small-group leader’s role is to read these subtle changes and adjust the tone of the discussion accordingly.

Small groups need to be safe places for people to talk openly. It is through shared wrestling with difficult life issues that some of the greatest personal growth is discovered. But in order for the group to feel safe, participants need to know it’s okay not to share sometimes. Always invite honest disclosure, but never force someone to speak if he or she isn’t comfortable doing so. (A savvy leader will follow up later with a group member who isn’t comfortable sharing in a group setting to see if a one-on-one discussion is more appropriate.)

Have volunteers take turns reading excerpts from Scripture or from the commentary. The more each person is involved even in the mundane tasks, the more they’ll feel comfortable opening up in more meaningful ways.

The leader should watch the clock and keep the discussion moving. Sometimes there may be more Going Deeper questions than your group can cover in your available time. If you’ve had a fruitful discussion, it’s okay to move on without finishing everything. And if you think the group is getting bogged down on a question or has taken off on a tangent, you can simply say, “Let’s go on to question 5.” Be sure to save at least ten to fifteen minutes for the Going Forward questions.

Finally, soak your group meetings in prayer—before you begin, during as needed, and always at the end of your time together.

Lesson 1

An Important Job

(1 TIMOTHY 1—2)

Before you begin …

• Pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal truth and wisdom as you go through this lesson.

• Read 1 Timothy 1—2. This lesson references chapters 1 and 2 in Be Faithful. It will be helpful for you to have your Bible and a copy of the commentary available as you work through this lesson.

Getting Started

From the Commentary

Timothy was born of mixed parentage: His mother was a Jewess, his father a Greek. He was so devoted to Christ that his local church leaders recommended him to Paul, and Paul added him to his “missionary staff” (Acts 16:1–5). Paul often reminded Timothy that he was chosen for this ministry (1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14). Timothy was faithful to the Lord (1 Cor. 4:17) and had a deep concern for God’s people (Phil. 2:20–22).

But in spite of his calling, his close association with Paul, and his spiritual gifts, Timothy was easily discouraged.

Paul wrote the letter we call 1 Timothy to encourage Timothy, to explain how a local church should be managed, and to enforce his own authority as a servant of God.

—Be Faithful, pages 20–21

1. What clues does Paul give in the first two chapters of 1 Timothy about Timothy’s tendency to be discouraged? (See especially 1 Tim. 1:18–19.) Why do you think Paul mentions that he has “handed over to Satan” Hymenaeus and Alexander?

2. Choose one verse or phrase from 1 Timothy 1—2 that stands out to you. This could be something you’re intrigued by, something that makes you uncomfortable, something that puzzles you, something that resonates with you, or just something you want to examine further. Write that here.

Going Deeper

From the Commentary

One reason Christian workers must stay on the job is that false teachers are busy trying to capture Christians. There were teachers of false doctrines in Paul’s day just as there are today, and we must take them seriously. These false teachers have no good news for lost sinners. They seek instead to lead Christians astray and capture them for their causes.

Paul used military language to help Timothy and his people see the seriousness of the problem (1 Tim. 1:3). Charge means “to give strict orders from a superior officer.” Paul used this word (sometimes translated “commandment” and “command” in KJV) eight times in his two letters to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:3, 5, 18; 4:11; 5:7; 6:13, 17; 2 Tim. 4:1). He was conveying this idea: “Timothy, you are not only a pastor of the church in a difficult city. You are also a Christian soldier under orders from the King. Now pass these orders along to the soldiers in your church!”

—Be Faithful, pages 21–22

3. How does Paul’s use of military language speak to an urgency in battling the false doctrines in the Ephesian church? What are some similar circumstances in today’s church where a “command” to a church leader might be appropriate? What are the risks of not responding to the false doctrines swiftly and decisively?

More to Consider: Read Galatians 5:1–6. How does this passage speak to the “ false doctrines” of religious legalism that Paul is warning against in 1 Timothy 1:3–11?

From the Commentary

The mention of “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11, literal translation) moved Paul to share his own personal testimony. He was “Exhibit A” to prove that the gospel of the grace of God really works. When you read Paul’s testimony (see also Acts 9:1–22; 22:1–21; 26:9–18), you begin to grasp the wonder of God’s grace and His saving power.

—Be Faithful, page 24

4. Review 1 Timothy 1:12–17. What do these verses tell us about Paul’s testimony? What arguments does he put forth to illustrate the gospel of grace in his own story?

From the History Books

The city of Ephesus (in present-day Turkey) was at one time a city of nearly half a million people. Among other things, it was known for the Temple of Artemis (Diana). People came from far away to worship the goddess of fertility. The temple itself, which took more than a hundred years to complete, is often referred to today as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” and is evidence of the strong pagan influence in the city of Ephesus during Paul’s day.

5. What impact would the pagan environment have had on Timothy’s ability to serve the church in Ephesus? What sorts of challenges might he have faced that were unique to a city that was known for its worship of a fertility goddess? How might knowing this about Ephesus have influenced the manner in which Paul addressed Timothy?

From the Commentary

It was not easy to serve God in pagan Ephesus, but Timothy was a man under orders, and he had to obey. The soldier’s task is to “please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:4), and not to please himself. Furthermore, Timothy was there by divine appointment: God had chosen him and sent him. It was this fact that could give him assurance in difficult days.

—Be Faithful, page 27

6. How does Paul’s personal story (1 Tim. 1:12–13) speak to the idea of being divinely appointed for the leadership task? How might this have offered encouragement to Timothy? How does this resonate with the way we view church leaders today?

From the Commentary

Timothy must have been greatly helped and encouraged when he read this first section of Paul’s letter. God had called Timothy, equipped him, and put him into his place of ministry. Timothy’s job was not to run all over Ephesus, being involved in a multitude of tasks. His job was to care for the church by winning the lost, teaching the saved, and defending the faith. Any task that did not relate to these ministries would have to be abandoned.

—Be Faithful, page 29

7. Why was it important for Timothy to focus on the local church? What greater value could this focus have had on other efforts to reach the Ephesians? In what ways do the leaders of churches today succeed in staying focused? In what ways does the church fail in this? How can Paul’s words in chapter 1 help redirect a church that has lost focus?

From the Commentary

Often, what we think is the “freedom of the Spirit” are the carnal ideas of some Christian who is not walking in the Spirit. Eventually this “freedom” becomes anarchy, and the Spirit grieves as a church gradually moves away from the standards of God’s Word.

To counteract this tendency, Paul exhorted both the men and the women in the church and reminded them of their spiritual responsibilities.

—Be Faithful, page 33

8. Review 1 Timothy 2:1–8. What were the spiritual responsibilities Paul described specifically for the men of the church? Why do you think he separated the responsibilities of men and women in this and the next section? How much of what Paul described is specific to the culture of the time, and what can we derive from this passage that is universally helpful for all believers, men or women?

More to Consider: Read Matthew 6:5; Luke 18:9–14; James 4:1–10; and 1 John 5:14–15 to see examples of problematic attitudes some people bring to prayer. How does Paul’s exhortation in 1 Timothy 2:1–4 speak to the concerns raised by these passages?

From the Commentary

The word translated “subjection” in 1 Timothy 2:11 is translated “submitting” and “submit” in Ephesians 5:21–22 and Colossians 3:18. It literally means “to rank under.” Anyone who has served in the armed forces knows that “rank” has to do with order and authority, not with value or ability.

Submission is not subjugation. Submission is recognizing God’s order in the home and the church and joyfully obeying it. When a Christian wife joyfully submits to the Lord and to her own husband, it should bring out the best in her.

—Be Faithful, page 40

9. Review 1 Timothy 2:9–15. What are the specific responsibilities Paul outlines for women in these verses? What makes this passage somewhat controversial in today’s church? Again, how much of what Paul writes is specific to the culture of the time, and how much is directly applicable today?

From the Commentary

Paul gave several arguments to back up this admonition that the Christian men in the church should be the spiritual leaders. The first is an argument from creation: Adam was formed first, and then Eve (1 Tim. 2:12–13).

The second argument has to do with man’s fall into sin. Satan deceived the woman into sinning (Gen. 3:1ff.; 2 Cor. 11:3); the man sinned with his eyes wide open. Because Adam rejected the God-given order, he listened to his wife, disobeyed God, and brought sin and death into the world. The submission of wives to their own husbands is a part of the original creation.

—Be Faithful, page 43

10. What is your initial reaction to Paul’s arguments about why men should be the spiritual leaders in the church? Why do you think Paul makes this distinction in his letter to Timothy? What can we discern from this that is applicable to today’s church leaders?

Looking Inward

Take a moment to reflect on all that you’ve explored thus far in this study of 1 Timothy 1—2. Review your notes and answers and think about how each of these things matters in your life today.

Tips for Small Groups: To get the most out of this section, form pairs or trios and have group members take turns answering these questions. Be honest and as open as you can in this discussion, but most of all, be encouraging and supportive of others. Be sensitive to those who are going through particularly difficult times and don’t press people to speak if they’re uncomfortable doing so.

11. When have you been discouraged like Timothy? How did you respond to that discouragement? How can Paul’s words of encouragement to Timothy help you?

12. Timothy was battling the false doctrine of legalism. How have you battled that in your church? In your own life? Why is it so easy to fall into legalism? How do Paul’s words to Timothy help you understand the gospel of grace?

13. What is your response to Paul’s exhortations to men and women at the end of 1 Timothy 2? How are Paul’s words applicable to your life? Do you agree with everything he says? Why or why not?

Going Forward

14. Think of one or two things you have learned that you’d like to work on in the coming week. Remember that this is all about quality, not quantity. It’s better to work on one specific area of life and do it well than to work on many and do poorly (or to be so overwhelmed that you simply don’t try).

Do you need encouragement? Do you need to fight the temptation to be legalistic? Be specific. Go back through 1 Timothy 1—2 and put a star next to the phrase or verse that is most encouraging to you. Consider memorizing this verse.

Real-Life Application Ideas: Invite a discussion with other church members about how you can support and encourage the church leadership. Brainstorm specific ways you can encourage the leaders, and then take action on these ideas.

Seeking Help

15. Write a prayer below (or simply pray one in silence), inviting God to work on your mind and heart in those areas you’ve previously noted. Be honest about your desires and fears.

Notes for Small Groups:

• Look for ways to put into practice the things you wrote in the Going Forward section. Talk with other

group members about your ideas and commit to being accountable to one another.

• During the coming week, ask the Holy Spirit to continue to reveal truth to you from what you’ve read

and studied.

• Before you start the next lesson, read 1 Timothy 3. For more in-depth lesson preparation, read chapter 3, “Follow the Leaders,” in Be Faithful.

©2010 Cook Communications Ministries. The Wiersbe Bible Study Series - 1&2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon by Warren Wiersbe. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shirl Hoffman's Good Game

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports

Baylor University Press (February 1, 2010)

***Special thanks to Tracy McCarter of The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***


Shirl J. Hoffman, Ed.D is Professor Emeritus of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he served as head of the department for 10 years. He has served at all levels of education, beginning his career as a physical education teacher in White Plains, New York, before moving on to positions as head basketball coach at Westchester Community College (NY). After completing his graduate work at Teachers College, Columbia University, he served successively as professor at The King’s College (NY) and at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He taught at the University of Pittsburgh for 13 years where he was director of graduate studies in physical education, moving to University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1985. He has an extraordinarily broad background in the field spanning motor learning and performance, sociology of sports and sport philosophy.

Product Details:

List Price: $24.95
Paperback: 356 pages
Publisher: Baylor University Press (February 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1932792104
ISBN-13: 978-1932792102


Sports and the Early Church

The story of evangelicalism’s dance with sports begins, appropriately enough, with the dawn of a faith that made its appearance in the context of sports-crazed societies. In the towns and cities where the gospel was first preached, athletics and sporting spectacles were woven into the fabric of civic life; they symbolized not only urban life, but what it meant to be Roman or Greek. French historian Henri Marrou characterized the Greek conception of life as a type of athletic struggle in which winning was one of the most significant aspects of the Greek soul. “There is no doubt that the Homeric hero and hence the actual Greek person of flesh and blood was really only happy when he felt and proved himself to be the first in his category, a man apart, superior.” 1 Cities sought identities, not merely through the exploits of their idolized athletes, but by vying with each other in building bigger and better sports and entertainment facilities. Wealthy politicians and entrepreneurs, anxious to display their power and prestige staged increasingly elaborate and expensive athletic shows at enormous personal expense. If the intensity of a cultural practice is reflected in years of assimilation, both the Greeks and Romans were far more steeped in the ethos of competitive sports than are sport enthusiasts of the 21st century. While American football and basketball date back a little over 100 years, Greek athletics and chariot racing, by comparison, had been around for over 600 years and the gladiatorial shows had been part of Roman culture for over 250 years when the first generation of Christians moved among their fellows.

The peculiar ethical demands of the newly formed faith fomented enormous cultural clashes with the societies in which it was being nurtured. The Christian community was forced to ask itself not only how being a Christian was different than being a Jew, but how being a Christian should modify believers’ approaches to all aspects of culture, including athletics, gladiatorial contests, and chariot racing. Tacitus, a first century historian and Roman senator, found the rage for sports among the masses almost inexplicable: “There are special vices peculiar to this city that children seem to absorb, almost in their mother’s womb: a partiality for the theater and a passion for horse racing and gladiatorial shows.” The pagan religious ceremony,as integral to sport spectacles as the Star Spangled Banner or seventh inning stretch is to American baseball, was a continuing source of uneasiness, but that wasn’t all. The single-minded obsession with self-aggrandizement, fame and glory that characterized Greek athletics and the smothering ethic of excess and obscene delight in human cruelty that found expression in Roman sports were problematic for the early Christians too. These impulses and the sports competitions which celebrated them represented an inhospitable backdrop for a new religion that emphasized love, sympathy, self-denial, soberness, and meekness. Given the fact that most early Christians were products of the socializing effects of popular sports, it would be naïve to imagine that their conversions brought with them swift and sweeping changes in their view of sports. It took time for them to sort out the implications of their faith for life in a world permeated with time-honored pagan customs and patterns of thought and action. Christianity’s conflict with heathenism may have begun, as one writer has noted, “in the arena of the people’s play,” but it was certainly not a war to the death. 2

For first generation Christians, informal play was never a live religious issue. Drawn largely from the lower classes, early converts probably lacked the time and resources required for indulging in sports and games, and when time was available, the constant threat of persecution no doubt robbed them of the inclination. Christian children living in the Hellenistic eastern part of the Roman Empire, where some of the earliest churches began, no doubt joined in many of the popular forms of informal play: tumbling and acrobatics, juggling, playing with tops and yo-yos, swinging on swings, and playing on see-saws. There is evidence that an invasive team ball game (episkyros) was played as well, but on the whole the Greeks weren’t much interested in team sports. The people of the Hellenistic provinces were indoctrinated with arete, the Greek ideal of excellence, expressed through a constant testing of one’s individual capacities against another, not only in sports, but in music, poetry, rhetoric, even in contests of surgery, kissing, drinking, eating, and beauty. But arête was a value centered in the individual; it was difficult, if not impossible to display arête while part of a team. Thus, the massive system of organized youth sports of our day probably had no corollary in the early Christian era.3

The Christian Bible does not provide a detailed account of Christian social life in the apostolic age and tells us virtually nothing about how Christians spent their leisure, but as British theologian J.G. Davies pointed out, “they do enumerate principles which were to be applied even more extensively as the centuries passed.” Scripture neither explicitly condoned nor endorsed informal play, implying that New Testament authors considered it to neither confer special advantage nor pose a substantial threat to the spiritual vitality of early adherents to the faith. The congregations at Ephesus and Corinth may not have competed against each other in a church episkyros league, but it wasn’t because they viewed physical activity or informal sports as inherently evil.4 But the public sport shows of the day—glittering, gaudy, contests designed to entertain pleasure-starved, hero-worshipping audiences—were an entirely different matter. Although not singled out for condemnation in scripture nor denounced in the very early years of Christendom, public athletic and gladiatorial shows eventually were vilified by a litany of early Christian leaders. As a rule, it was as a form of entertainment, not as a system of education or informal leisure that sport was problematic for the earliest of Christians. 5

Sports of the Day

Public sport spectacles in early Christian society were shaped by both Greek and Roman influences. The games of the ancient Greeks emphasized the ideals of agon, athletic exploit, honor, and winning. The Greeks valued athletics as military training experiences and thus appropriate for participation by the masses. The Romans also invoked a military rationale, especially for some of their crueler sports, but for the most part athletics weren’t of great interest to the early Romans. To them, the hours spent by Greeks in the athletics of the gymnasia and palestras had been a leading cause of their enslavement and degeneracy. Romans preferred to watch sport spectacles. To meet the demand for sports watching, public and private entrepreneurs offered a variety of dazzling, often vulgar shows.

At the same time, the line between Greek and Roman sports of the time was not always clear cut. The spread of the Roman Empire in Greece and its surrounds, for example, brought with it a Roman-like love of gladiatorial contests and chariot racing and for athletics made cruel and barbarous by modifications that appealed to public taste. Once threatened by the Roman conquest, the ancient Greek athletic contests had recovered by 12BC, thanks largely to an endowment from Herod that re-instituted the Olympic Games. Thus athletics, gladiatorial contests, and chariot racing all flourished in the eastern Hellenic section of the Empire around the time and places where Paul and his fellow missionaries labored.

Athletic Contests

Sports entertainment at the time of the early church assumed three different forms: the athletic games of the stadium, the gladiatorial shows of the ampitheatre (and theater), and chariot racing. In the eastern part of the empire where the church had its vital roots, the main sports attraction was the race at the hippodrome (circus) and athletics at the stadium. There were four primary athletic events of national interest, ancient equivalents of the World Series or the four “major” tournaments in golf or tennis: the Olympic games at Olympia and the Nemean games at Nemea, dedicated to Zeus; the Pythian games at Delphi in honor of Apollo; and the Isthmian games at Corinth in honor of Poseidon. Athletes who had been victorious at least once at each of these games were accorded special honors and usually a great deal of money. Although these events were the most popular, they accounted for only a small portion of the athletic contests of the day. Local games also associated with religious festivals permeated societies of the Mediterranean world. By the first century the sports craze had begun to spread, even to the point where separate competitions for women participants were being held in various cities. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Spectators suffered in blazing heat, often finding themselves in cramped quarters, subject to almost unbearable commotion, and constantly pestered by flies drawn to the huge quantities of blood and red meat spilled at the altars. 10

The athletic contests took place in the context of a grand sacred festival. Huge crowds arrived days before the events to revel in an ancient form of tailgating. Street philosophers lectured passersby; poets and artists presented their latest works; and fortune tellers, magicians and peddlers of food and souvenirs pestered tourists who walked the streets. The “pre-game warm up” began with a procession of over a thousand athletes, officials and spectators from nearby towns, stopping at appointed places along the way to offer sacrifices and for the athletes to be sprinkled by pig’s blood, a ritual purification. The modern equivalent, says one writer, would require the Olympics “to be combined with Coney Island, Carnival in Rio, mass at the Vatican, and a U.S. Presidential election.”11

On the first day of the games, the athletes gathered for administration of the sacred oath in front of a statue of Zeus Horkios (Zeus of the Oath). In contrast to the modern practice of collecting blood and urine samples to weed out dishonest athletes, Olympic participants swore on the flesh of wild boars that they would do nothing evil against the games. The five-day festival started with a competition for trumpeters and heralds at the grand altar; the winners served as the ancient equivalent of a public address system. The remainder of the day was taken up by the offering of animal sacrifices, especially by horse owners who sought divine assistance for the chariot races, the first event scheduled for the hippodrome. The next day at dawn, a procession led by priests of Zeus, clad in purple and carrying switches to punish athletes who committed a foul, visited some 63 altars to various gods. The skies were darkened from smoke from the altars, made even worse by private sacrifices arranged by affluent spectators who hired flutists, dancers, and priests to perform.

The first event was the 4-horse chariot race, followed by the horseback race and the 2-horse chariot race. The next day the scene shifted to the stadium for the pentathlon: the discus, javelin, and long jump, wrestling and the 200-meter sprint. These also were independent events. Victory celebrations and parties went long into the night. On the same night (perhaps the next) contestants and spectators gathered for a sacrifice at the great altar of Zeus, seven meters high and ten meters in diameter. Sacrifices continued through the following morning after a large procession in which 100 oxen made their way to the altar of Zeus. After the sacrifice large portions of the meat were roasted and distributed to crowds who spent the rest of the day recovering from the feast. It is significant that spectators saw no line separating athletic competition from worship; they were seamless rituals. And if some evangelical sports aficionados are to be believed, the Apostle Paul was there, watching, eating, mingling, clearing the smoke from his eyes, and discussing the fortunes of his favorite runner or fighter.

The following day featured footraces (gymnikoi agones) including a long distance race and another similar to the modern day 400-meter event. The afternoon brought the “heavy events:” wrestling, boxing, and the pankration, a brutal form of no-holds-barred street fighting. Boxers wrapped their fists with leather thongs which served as a cutting edge; some Roman fighters went them one better by weaving spikes into the thongs. Combat continued until one of the competitors surrendered. In a particularly sensational fight a pankratist named Arrachion dislocated his opponent’s toe, forcing his opponent to surrender, but not before his opponent’s leg scissor hold could be released. It suffocated Arrachion; thus a corpse was crowned and proclaimed the winner. These contests, says ancient sport expert Michael Poliakoff, involved “a level of officially sanctioned violence and danger that the modern Olympics would never tolerate,” even though such violence was fiercely banned in civic life outside the arena.12

While the ritualized murder that passed for sport in the Roman spectacles was eminently more debauched, romantic notions of ancient Greek athletics as honorable and pure, limited to amateur competitors and infused with a sporting spirit that valued “not winning, but taking part” are hardly consistent with what is known about them. To the Greeks, sports were all about winning. Losers were publicly mocked and humiliated. According to Pindar, the losers went “skulking down back roads, hiding from their enemies, bitten by their calamity.”13 British historian E.N. Gardiner, one of the foremost authorities on ancient sports, once said that “few…. realize how corrupt and degraded were Greek athletics during St. Paul’s lifetime.” Almost from their ancient beginnings they were about money. “Purists who refused to mix money with sport did not exist in the ancient world, and victors boast of success in the cash competitions as openly as they boast of victory in sacred contests.”14

Much like modern critics of sport, early Roman commentators resented the enormous sums paid to athletes. Historian Stephen Miller, for example, has estimated that as early as 476BC a boxer and pankratist named Theagenes won the equivalent of $44 million throughout his career. A trainer and medical technician for one athlete signed a contract for $132,000 in today’s currency only to be hired away the next year by a rival for $242,000.15 According to Pindar, the Olympic victors were given lifetime pensions which gave them “sweet smooth-sailing” for the remainder of their lives. They paraded triumphantly through town in four-horse chariots. “Long before the first television endorsement,” notes history writer Tony Perrottet, “they made fortunes from cameo appearances at lesser games in Asia Minor and southern Italy; or they embarked on lucrative careers in politics. One wrestler, Marcus Aurelius Asclepiades, became a senator in Athens, anticipating wrestler-cum-Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura by some 20 centuries.” 16

Scandals, bribery and cheating plagued the athletic contests of the east. Athletes traveled the stadium circuit, hoping to fatten their wallets at each venue. Many invoked powers from the darker side to help them defeat their opponents and bragged about their athletic exploits in the Greek spirit of unbridled self-assertion. The deadly seriousness with which the Greeks took sport is evident in the Iliad, where a boxer named Epeios warned his opponent that he would “smash his skin apart and break his bones on each other” and advised him to arrange to have “those who care about him wait nearby in a huddle to carry him out, after my fists have beaten him”. 17 Athletes, particularly those that fought in the “heavy events,” were peculiar physical specimens, depicted in art and literature as hulking toughs with torn ears, massive skulls and tiny brains whose epigrams boasted of the blood they had spilt. “Perhaps after all, mused one historian, not so very far removed from the gladiators as one might have imagined.” 18

Gladiatorial Contests

Athletic contests never really captured the public imagination in the Roman Empire where sensibilities had been seared by the realities of incessant war. Something more titillating than footraces, javelin-throwing, and wrestling was required. Even the brutalities of the pankration and boxing failed to generate much enthusiasm. Romans found what they were looking for in the ancient Eutruscan custom of forcing prisoners of war, slaves, and other unfortunates to fight each other to the death. By adding a few embellishments and incorporating the contests into lavish and highly marketable spectacles the thrill of athletic competition was blended with the sadistic lure of ultimate defeat. The casual acceptance of these brutal shows continues to puzzle modern historians.

Moderns tend to associate the games with the 50,000 seat Roman Coliseum built in AD 80, but in reality, gladiatorial amphitheaters were widely distributed throughout the empire and apparently enjoyed by highly cultured Greeks. At Pompeii, for example, the amphitheater was large enough to seat the entire city of 20,000. Like Greek athletics, the gladiatorial games were part of a ritual complex incorporating the Imperial Cult of the Emperors, Celtic cult practices, and the cult of Nemesis.19 Statues of gods surrounded the arena, their faces often covered to spare them some of the bloodiest scenes. When a gladiator had fallen, a man dressed as Charon, ferryman to the underworld, entered the arena and, striking the head of the corpse with a mallet, announced his ownership of the body. He was accompanied by another playing the part of Mercury who represented the guide of souls to hell. After he had stuck the body with a red hot iron, he escorted the stretcher-laden corpse from the arena.

The games followed various plans, but usually the first event of the morning show featured animal fights: bulls against elephants, lions against leopards, and rhinoceros against buffalo. During Nero’s reign elephants and bulls were said to have been attacked by 400 tigers in a single day’s program. The fights were followed by circus acts including boys dancing on the backs of elephants, trained tigers and bears, some dressed as gladiators. Animals that managed to survive were usually killed in the hunt which was the third part of the morning program. Sometimes relatively harmless animals such as deer, ostriches, and donkeys were herded into the arena and killed. Lunch time often featured executions of criminals and Christians which were carried out in elaborate mimes and crucifixions. Some were set afire; others were killed by lions. In a particularly popular innovation a pair of victims was brought to the arena, one armed the other defenseless. The defenseless man was chased around the arena and eventually killed by the armed man who then surrendered his weapon and, in turn, was chased and killed by the next prisoner.20

But it was the gladiatorial fights that drew the most attention. Gladiators were skilled athletes in one sense, trained professional killers in another. Masters of hand to hand combat, they engaged in what were perpetual “sudden death overtimes:” winners lived, sometimes to reap fame and fortune and to fight another day, while the bodies of losers bled into the arena sand. The contests were infused with religious overtones. Upon entering the arena gladiators swore sacred oaths that put their lives “on deposit” with the gods of the underworld. 21 If a fighter put on a good show yet lost this battle, his fate rested in the hands of the crowd and, if he were in attendance, the emperor. A thumbs up sign meant he could live to fight another day, a thumbs down sign sent his opponent’s dagger through his midsection. Few gladiators survived more than three years. Although some enjoyed longer lives and were celebrated as heroes and idolized by women, they were despised as humans, deprived of access to elite social functions.

With the passage of time the popularity of the games grew, as did the thirst for increasingly brutal, elaborate, and spectacular shows. The Romans didn’t have 24-hour telecasts on ESPN, but they watched a lot of gladiatorial games. In the fourth century, 177 days a year were designated as public holidays with 10 full days given to gladiatorial contests, 66 to chariot races and the rest of them devoted to the theater. The games required huge expenditures of private and public money. Emperors and aristocrats vied with each other to present the most colossal spectacle. In the early first century, Augustus sponsored dozens of shows that were estimated to have required 10,000 gladiators; the birthday of Vitellius (15-69AD) was said to have been marked by gladiatorial contests in all 265 districts of the empire. When conventional one-on-one battles failed to excite, promoters offered grander spectacles featuring infantry and cavalry; arenas could be flooded for colossal naval battles. Caesar once sponsored a show featuring gladiators, chariot races, athletic competitions, a naval battle, and five days of wild-beast hunts. It ended with a battle between two armies each consisting of 500 infantry, twenty elephants, and thirty cavalry. In their search for even more depraved entertainments, promoters arranged torch-lit battles featuring women against men, women against women, women against dwarfs, blind against blind, and women fighting from chariots; even combats between aristocrats became popular forms of titillation for frenzied crowds. 22

Scholars have attributed deep and complex motives to the Roman love for gladiatorial games. Some have identified important connections of the games to military and political life while others have seen in it as an attempt to compensate for an “excruciating feeling of humiliation and insecurity” that faced the Romans in their daily lives.23 A case has been made that the games’ popularity can be traced to the sense of reassurance that the crowds felt upon seeing disasters inflicted on others and not themselves. Others have claimed that by enjoying vicariously the violence of the arena the Romans were purged of aggression and hostility, certainly untrue in the case of Empress Pompaea, whom Nero kicked to death because she scolded him for his late return from the Circus Maximus. However one dresses up the ritualized torture and unspeakable violence of the arena in sociological theory, it still remains an unprecedented variation on sports. It represents what historian Crane Brinton rightly called, “a special case of moral history.” One has only to probe the underbelly of bullfights, Acapulco cliff diving, daredevil shows and auto racing to appreciate that the specter of death and violence is intrinsically fascinating to a large percentage of the population, but only in Rome was the urge satisfied by unrestrained ritual slaughter.24

Chariot Racing

Chariot racing in the hippodrome had been part of ancient Greek athletics long before Christ, reaching its ascendancy in the first few centuries of the Roman Empire, not only in Rome, but in the eastern cities where many of the earliest Christian churches were founded. It may be impossible to exaggerate the addictive power of racing in Greco-Roman life. For the average Roman, said a commentator of the age, “the Circus Maximus is temple, home, community center and the fulfillment of all of their hopes.” The race course, along with forums, fountains, theaters, temples, and the public baths, was regarded as an essential hallmark of a classical city. Although not as brutal as gladiatorial contests, chariot races combined frenzy and fury to create a spectacle that was unexplainable in its grip on the Roman conscience. Hundreds of thousands packed the massive Circus Maximus to witness spectacles which, in their day, rivaled those of modern day Super Bowls. If the size of the stadium reflected the level of interest of the citizens, there can be no question that racing was the most popular spectacle. The Circus Maximus stretched more than three football fields long (335 meters) and one football field wide (80 meters), an area large enough to hold up to 250,000 spectators. Most races were seven lap events; twenty four races were run each day, although history records as many as 48 being run on special occasions. Intermissions might include gladiatorial contests, acrobats, boxing, wrestling, and even wild beast hunts.25

It is not stretching the historical record too thinly to describe chariot racing as the forerunner of modern day auto racing in which daring, speed, and the possibility of death on the track combined with ribaldry and drunkenness in the stands. Charioteers tended to be small and their chariots, unlike the bulky ones pictured in the movie Ben Hur, were lightweight and designed for speed, something that enabled them to race at speeds exceeding those possible on a mounted horse. Drivers wore protective uniforms to limit injury in case of a crash. Negotiating the turns posed problems for the charioteer just as they do for today’s race car racer and driving styles were aggressive and ruthless. Cutting across the path of a rival, trying to force it aside and up against the barrier was considered legitimate; hence spectacular accidents, often involving several teams, were accepted as part of the race. All in all it wasn’t a great deal different from the “aggressive driving” and “bump-drafting” that has plagued NASCAR in recent years. When asked by reporters what he needed to do to improve his performance, NASCAR idol Jeff Gordon told them that he needed to be aggressive and “jump back in that throttle and carry that corner speed,” expressing a sentiment that only his fellow competitors and ancient charioteers could have appreciated.26

Although modern race car drivers move at much faster speeds, the chariot races were much more dangerous, to the horses as well as to men. Excerpts from a fifth-century poem written by Sidonius Apollinarius speak of the “sweat of drivers and flying steeds,” “the hoarse roar from applauding partisans,” and at the end, describes the absolute horror: “(Your competitor) shamelessly made for your wheel with a sidelong dash. His horses were brought down, a multitude of intruding legs entered the wheels, and….the revolving rim shattered the entangled feet; then he, a fifth victim, flung from his chariot, which fell upon him, caused a mountain of havoc, and blood disfigured his prostrate brow.” One of the saddest inscriptions embossed on a Roman tomb was placed there by a charioteer named Polyneices. The tomb contained the body of his son, who like his brother, died in a racing accident: “Marcus Aurelius Polyneices, born a slave, lived 29 years, 9 months and 5 days. He won the palm 739 times: 655 times for the Reds, 55 times for the Greens, 12 times for the Blues and 17 times for the Whites.”27

Fierce partisanship ruled the day and the disposition of crowds was a mixed bag: those delirious with joy might be seated close to those seething with anger and disappointment. Young vandals with a special talent for crude and incendiary taunts riled both the competitors and spectators. The “factions,” fan clubs or sport associations with distinct political ties and passionately devoted to their “colors,” had especially notorious reputations for violence. Spectator riots were not uncommon, certainly more common at the races than at the decidedly more violent gladiatorial contests. Gambling was as pervasive as was drunkenness; more than one drunken fan made the fatal mistake of running onto the track during a race. Like the hooligans that disrupt modern European soccer, they “fought with their throats in the hippodrome and occasionally with knives in the streets.” On at least one occasion a brawl in the stands left 3000 Blues dead, killed by Green hoodlums known as “citizen burners,” whose morbid mantra of “burn here, burn there, not a Blue left anywhere” was as familiar to circus crowds as “kill the ump” is to modern baseball fans.28

The races were immersed in almost unspeakable luxury. Successful charioteers reaped vast fortunes for the risks they took in the circus. One Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who took part in over 4000 races in a twenty year career, is reported to have earned nearly 36 million sesterti in his career. The annual pay for a soldier, by comparison, was 900 sesterti. While critics complained about the outrageous sums earned by drivers, they idolized them just the same, even to the point where one grief stricken fan is reported to have thrown himself on the funeral pyre of his favorite driver. But eventually the prize money and the elaborate entertainments proved too costly for the promoters. With the passing of time the ceremonies and ancillary entertainments (cheaper than the races) began to overshadow the actual competitions. By the 12th century they were simply too expensive for anyone to sponsor.29

Religious ceremony, especially the imperial cult of the Emperor, formed a significant part of the racing spectacles. Elaborate pre-race ceremonies featured a procession of the gods (pompa circensis) with hoisted images of Roman deities. In the second century, the Temple of the Sun bordered the racing grounds in honor of The Imperial Sun God who was the patron saint of the circus and chariot races. The cult remained an important element in the imperial ceremony and continued well into the eleventh century. Religious processions became so important that by the third century they consumed as much time and attention as the races themselves. On the track where the fires of competition burned hot, religion and magic became a tool for honing the competitive edge. Many charioteers, desperate for a win, were ill content merely to seek the blessing of their gods; additional insurance was sought on the dark side. An ominous inscription by one charioteer bears testimony to the earnestness of the supplicants: “torture and kill the horses of the Greens and Whites, and… kill in a crash their drivers Clarus, Felix, Primulus and Romanus, and leave not a breath in their bodies.”30

Greeks and Romans, like many people today, simply were unable to imagine life without sport spectacles. Not a great deal of thought was given to the moral issues raised by the competitions; the games were simply there, always had been and probably always would be. From the vantage point of the 21st century, gladiatorial contests, heavy athletics, and chariot racing may stand out as obvious targets of moral outrage, but for the Romans and Greeks, eminently reasonable people in their own right, they represented parts of glamorous and glorious traditions, albeit indelicate at times. Even highly cultured individuals such as Cicero and Pliny the Younger defended the gladiatorial games on the grounds that they encouraged bravery and contempt for pain and death, traits which would come in handy on the battlefields. Senses had become so numbed it may have been impossible for the average Roman to feel sympathy for those who suffered and died in the course of furnishing their entertainments. An indication as to how “naturally” the games were taken by ancients can be seen in the letters of Symmachus, a late fourth century Roman who didn’t have a reputation for being a harsh person, yet in reporting the suicides of some Saxons he was having groomed to fight in the arena, his letters show only how sorry he felt for himself, not at all for the Saxons. Seneca and some of his contemporaries might have complained that they returned home from the spectacles “more covetous, more ambitious, more self-indulgent…crueler and more inhuman for having been amongst my fellow man,” but they were clearly in the minority, pointy-headed intellectuals who obviously didn’t know good fun when they saw it.31

An Ambivalent Laity

The attitude of the average Christian convert toward sport spectacles has been described as “one of fanatical antipathy,” but “ambivalent and irresolute” is probably a more accurate characterization. Surely the Greek “admiration for the uninhibited and unbridled assertion of self” couldn’t be embraced by early Christians who were in the process of learning how to adapt their lives to the severe teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet it seems clear that early Christians struggled in deciding how much of the old way of life should be left behind and how much could be continued without marring their Christian witness. Judging from the tirades of church Fathers, more than a few, especially in the second, third, and fourth centuries, were sneaking off to the amphitheater, hippodrome and stadium. Gladiatorial contests and wild beast shows may have been, as a historian notes, “a Christian’s worst nightmare,” yet it must also be remembered that the early faith attracted people from all walks of life, including many who were accustomed to attending athletic events and gladiatorial shows. Some no doubt had been sport promoters, athletes, gladiators, and charioteers prior to their conversions. Just as some early Christians volunteered for the Roman army with its long calendar of pagan sacrifices, so too we must suspect that some remained patrons of the sport spectacles. “We should allow once again,” says historian Robin Fox, “for Christians who were ready to compromise to a degree which their leaders’ moral sermons would not contemplate.”32

In light of this, a range of opinions about the public sport spectacles most likely characterized the early Christian laity. New converts felt pulled in two directions: by cultural traditions and the excitement of the arena on one hand, and by the stern warnings of Christian ecclesiastics on the other. St. Augustine of Hippo, who regarded the gladiatorial contests as “licensed cruelty,” tells of his friend, Alypius, who gave up the games when he became a Christian, but on one occasion was enticed to the arena by friends. Overcome by guilt, Alypius put his hands over his face and refused to look. Yet, before long, the atmosphere got the best of him and soon he was shouting and roaring with the crowd. Surely Alypius was not alone. Many who had attended the spectacles on a regular basis before their conversion probably found that excising these pastimes from their lifestyles was not easily done.33

Some Jewish converts’ former separatist tradition had already forbidden attendance at spectacles, not simply on grounds of the pagan rites and nudity of the athletes (which violated Mosaic Law), but because sports were blatantly Hellenistic, a dangerous threat to Jewish ethical codes and customs. However, there is reason to think that this belief did not hold for all or even most of the Jewish population. The eminent Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria, for example, is known to have frequented the athletic contests of his day, often offering critical and informed commentary on them. He also was known to have attended the chariot races. The late H.A. Harris, remarking on the enormity of the influence of Greek culture on Jewish perceptions of sport, pointed out that the nudity of the contestants may not have been as objectionable to Jews as historians have imagined. Some Palestinian Jews as well as those scattered throughout the region had been attending and even participating in athletic contests as early as two centuries before Christ. If the Macccabean story of an unscrupulous high priest of the second century is true, even the priesthood had difficulty resisting the addictive pulls of sports. Jason was the leader of a pro-Hellenist faction in Jerusalem who, in an effort to facilitate the integration of the Greek and Jewish cultures did an unthinkable thing: he erected a gymnasium in Jerusalem, “enrolled the most influential young men and ‘brought them under the Greek hat.’” It was an immediate success, attracting Jewish priests who “no longer showed any zeal for the offices of the sacrifices, and were anxious to share the unlawful facilities of the palestra in their keenness to challenge one another in throwing the discus.”34

In a brief play written by a second century Roman lawyer named Minutius Felix Marcus, the heathen Caecelius accuses Christians of being dullards by saying, “you have no concern in public displays; you reject the public banquets and abhor the sacred games” (italics added). Octavius acknowledges the claims and explains that Christians object to the games on two grounds: the pagan worship associated with the games, and the fact that the games “purvey and stimulate immorality.” 35 Shunning sports in a sport-mad society earned many early Christians reputations as kill-joys. “The world hates the Christian,” said the second century author of the Epistle to Diogenes, “though it receiveth no wrong from them, because they set themselves against its pleasures.” The early Christian lawyer and apologist Tertullian, an arch-critic of the sports of his times, thought abstaining from popular sport spectacles was the hallmark of a believer. 36

For some, ridding their lifestyles of sporting spectacles could be a defining moment in their religious lives. Thascius Cyprian, a third-century lawyer who became a Christian in mid-life (he called himself “a born again Christian”) gave up his practice and sold most of his property to help the Christian poor. Looking back on his life he was able to connect the change in his moral convictions as having been provoked by his shunning of displays of riches and the gladiatorial shows. In some cases this change in conviction happened so quickly that it raised suspicions, as for example those of early church father St. Jerome who once observed that the converts who were “yesterday in the amphitheater, (were) today in the church; (who) in the evening (were) at the circus (are) in the morning at the altar.” 37

A Hostile Clergy

In spite of the laity’s lingering fascination with the sport spectacles of their day, there was little doubt where Christian leaders stood on the issue. Preachers and apologists consistently thundered against “the circus, the race-course, the contest of athletes…which the Devil introduced into the world under the pretext of amusement, and through which he leads the souls of men to perdition.”38 In the authoritative words of historian Ernest Renan, “one of the most profound sentiments of the primitive Christians, and one too which produced the most extended results, was detestation of the theater, the stadium and the gymnasium—that is to say, of all the public resorts which gave its distinctive character to a Grecian or Roman city.” Another historian notes that “actors, musicians, dancers, and athletes were ranked together with prostitutes, astrologers, and diviners by Christian thinkers and rejected outright as representatives of the immorality, idolatry, depravity, and inhumanity characterized by such entertainments.” 39 The Apostolic Constitutions compiled in the third century urged Christians to avoid “indecent spectacles such as the theater and public sports,” and forbade baptism, church membership, and communion to those who frequented the amphitheater. Gladiators and fencing masters who taught how to kill were not to be baptized into the faith until they promised to give up their professions; and the canons of the Council of Arles in 314 AD specifically forbade Christians to associate with gladiators or charioteers.40

Preachers found it especially difficult to imagine newly converted Christians ambling comfortably among the scores of burning altars at the Greek athletic contests or sitting with a clear conscience as the procession of the gods passed by in the circus. Novation, an early 3rd century theologian, fired off a stern warning to early Christians who, he was shocked to discover, were unashamedly attending the games. “Sacred scripture condemns the spectacles,” he said, “because idolatry is the source of all the public games. How incongruous it is for a faithful Christian, who has renounced the devil at baptism, to renounce Christ at the games!” It wasn’t only idolatry that bothered Novation; he was equally critical of the immorality and brutality of the games, the strife and discord that they fomented among spectators, and the immoral climate that spawned including “wanton licentiousness, public vice, and notorious lechery.” These same two themes—idolatry and immorality—figured prominently in the writings of the Apostle Paul, who condemned the Corinthian practice of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor.8: 1-13), possibly to Zeus at the Isthmian games that were held at Corinth. Historian Richard DeVoe allows that the Apostle Paul’s dennounciation of “debauchery, idolatry and withcraft…drunkenness, orgies, and the like” as behaviors that will bar people from the kingdom of God in Galatians 5:19-21, his warning to the Corinthians not to indulge in pagan revelry (I Cor 10:7), and Peter’s warning against living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, and detestable idolatry all might have been aimed at the popular games. Beginning in the last half of the second century the church fathers preached unremittingly against Christian attendance of the games.41

For many church leaders, the sport spectacles represented in a microcosm all that was wrong with Roman society. They were paradigms of excess and extravagance, shallowness and sensuousness, selfishness and self-gratification. Church fathers often used the incredible story of Kleomedes, a famous Green athlete who was said to have killed his opponent using an illegal blow that tore open his rib cage, not simply to condemn athletics but to condemn the whole of pagan society.42 The brutality of the amphitheater was vilified, not simply because of the pain and suffering it caused the gladiators, but because of its pernicious effect on those who watched. There was an abiding concern about the capacity of fanaticism and consumption of violent displays to erode the reasonableness and humility that was seen as a hallmark of Christian demeanor. For example, Cassidorus, Christian secretary to Emperor Theodosius, viewed the frenzy of the circus as incompatible with the Christian spirit:

The spectacle drives out sound morality and invites childish factiousness, it banishes honesty and it is an unfailing source of riots… most remarkable of all, in these beyond all other spectacles men’s minds are carried away by excitement without any regard for dignity and sobriety. Green takes the lead and half the crowd is plunged into gloom. Blue passes him, and a great mass of citizens suffer the torments of the damned. They cheer wildly with no useful result; they suffer nothing but are cut to the heart. 43

But no early Christian leader so elegantly and systematically showed how and why sports of the times the sports should be brought into judgment by Christians as did Tertullian, a late second century ecclesiastic writer, lawyer, and apologist who had undisguised ascetic leanings. His De Spectaculis stands as the most explicit and harsh denunciation of sports in the early Christian era. In blunt and uncompromising prose, Tertullian considered arguments put forth by some in the Christian community to justify their attendance at the games and rebutted them like the skilled lawyer that he was:

The games bring enjoyment. God is not offended by people enjoying themselves so it is perfectly legitimate to gain pleasure by attending the spectacles. (I, 233)
The games are products of God’s creation. Since all things are part of God’s creation, they cannot be hostile to Him. This includes the horse, the lion, the strength of the athlete’s body, and the cement and marble of the stadium. (II, 237)
Scripture doesn’t specifically forbid attendance at the spectacles. (IX, p. 270; XV p.271; XVI, 273)
God looks on the games and is not defiled, neither will Christians be defiled merely by watching. (XXI, 283; XX 281)
As for the athletic events, Tertullian condemned the gambling that was rampant, and he found the violence in boxing and wrestling (and no doubt the pancratium) incompatible with the Christian view of the body as the object of God’s creation (XVIII, 277). Taking a passing shot at running, throwing, and jumping competitions as “idle (or frivolous) feats,” he believed wrestling to be intrinsically devilish (IVIII, 277). Quaint though his perception of wrestling might have been, Tertullian possessed keen insight into the nature of sports of his day, a perception shaped no doubt by many years of attending prior to his middle-aged conversion.44

When such blasts from the pulpit proved ineffective in stemming the public craze for sports, more extreme action was taken. In one of the more grizzly protests of this sort an obscure Syrian monk named Telemachus traveled to Rome from the desert in the early fifth century where he attempted to halt the gladiatorial shows single-handedly. He managed to make it to the floor of the Coliseum, thrust himself between two battling gladiators and commanded them to stop “in the name of Christ Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Incensed by the rude interruption the spectators stoned him to death.45

Again, Tertullian didn’t speak for all Christians of his age and especially for those in succeeding centuries. The large-scale Christianization of society in the late third and fourth centuries would lead to a dulling of the sharp distinction between the attitudes and lifestyles of believers and pagans with respect to many aspects of popular culture. “The question of what it was that defined a Christian had never been easy to answer,” says historian R.A. Markus, “but it had become especially troubling in an age when Christianity seemed to have become so easy.” Some Christians probably always had attended the games and races, but with the passing of a century or two, visiting the circus and arenas became more accepted in Christian circles. How else is one to explain a Phrygian inscription dating to the third century that tells of a wealthy Christian who paid for the expense of city games, or historical records showing that in Eumenia a Christian athlete named “Helix” had won prizes in pagan games extending from Asia to southern Italy, or Christian emperor Constantine’s decision to allow the inhabitants of a town in Italy to honor him by sponsoring sport spectacles?46

And there is the curious story of Hilarion, the third century charismatic Christian ascetic who lived as a hermit in the desert who was said to have performed miraculous faith healings. According to Jerome, this pillar of the faith not only applied his faith healing to heal a charioteer’s neck which had been stiffened by racing, he agreed to bless the racing horse of a prominent charioteer in Gaza whose opponent was said to be amassing wins by using a sorcerer to curse his opponents. According to Jerome, Hilarion gave a blessing to the horses, their stables and the racecourse and next time out they romped home to resounding Christian cheers. “The decisive victory in those games and many others later,” said Jerome, “caused very many people to turn to the faith.” If these records are indeed true (Jerome was the only historical source) history may duly record Hilarion as the first Christian chaplain to sports and his protégé charioteer as the first athlete evangelist.47

The ultimate demise of the Greek athletics probably occurred not so much as a result of Christian condemnation as of a declining economy and the waning of interest in the religion with which they were associated. Wild beast shows continued to be popular even under the rule of some Christian emperors, and the chariot races continued well into the 11th century, long after Christians had assumed political power and engineered feeble attempts to Christianize them (see chapter 3). There is no doubt that by five centuries after Christ, Christianity had impacted the races, but despite the protests of ecclesiastics, it never brought down the final curtain on them. In the end, the spectacles simply became too costly to sponsor. And while Christian influence no doubt played a significant role in the eventual demise of gladiatorial shows, there also is reason to believe that even against this most outrageous of sports, the church proved to be a weak moderator of public opinion. Constantine banned gladiatorial games in 325 AD, but there is evidence that they continued to be popular in the western Empire into the early decades of the 5th century. 48

Was Paul a sports aficionado?

In the minds of many in the modern Christian community, Paul’s use of rich athletic imagery suggests that he may have not been as critical of sports as were his progeny of the second and third centuries. The evangelical athletic community has interpreted his heavily reliance on athletic metaphors as an apostolic blessings on the sports and games of his day, and by extension, justification for their involvement in popular sports today. Evangelical athletes find inspiration in the passages; it isn’t uncommon, for example, for them to sport T-shirts emblazoned with athletic imagery from Philippians 3:14 (“I press toward the mark for the high calling of God in Jesus Christ”) or II Tim. 4:7 (“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”)49

Citing Paul’s use of athletic language in order to justify involvement in sports is hardly a modern Christian invention. Third century church leader Novatian was dismayed when some of his contemporaries sorted through scripture in a frantic attempt to justify their attendance at the games. They questioned why they shouldn’t be allowed to attend the races at the hippodrome when Elijah had driven a chariot. And if the Apostle “paints for us the picture of a boxing match and of our own wrestling against the spiritual forces of wickedness…Why then should a faithful Christian not be at liberty to be a spectator of things that the divine Writings are at liberty to mention?” But Novation tells his readers that the Apostle’s references are merely exhortations to practice virtue, “not concessions to attend pagan spectacles and enjoy base pleasures,” and wonders if “it would have been far better for such people to lack (any) knowledge of the Scriptures than to read them in such a manner.” But this doesn’t answer the question of why would Paul have used these athletic figures of speech unless he, in contrast to the church leaders that followed in his wake, was a proponent of popular sports50

First, a quick review of the athletic passages in Paul’s writing.51 The most elaborate applications of this athletic language refer to the events of the stadium, especially running. In I Corinthians 9:24-26 where Paul urges his readers to exert greater effort in running “the race,” he draws a parallel between the self renunciation required in his ministry and that required of athletes who compete for prizes in the stadium and in verse 27 shifts to the metaphor of boxing to make the point that his own desires are not to stand in the way of the spiritual war. He uses the technical term hypopiazo (“I give it the fist blow under the eye: I beat my body and defeat it.”) In Philippians 3:12-14 the Apostle, again in the context of an apology for his ministry, uses the athletic metaphor of a runner to illustrate the critical importance of the goal for which he is striving in his ministry. In other passages he speaks of having finished his race and adhered to the course set for him by God (Acts 20:24; II Tim 4:7). In Romans 9:16 Paul reminds readers that salvation comes not merely by wishing or running, but by mercy bestowed by God. A reference to running in Gal 2:2 mentions his not having run in vain, and again in Phil 2:16, Paul notes that he “did not run or labor in vain,” where some scholars believe the word used for labor refers to an athlete’s training.52 In Galatians 5:7 he mentions that although he has been running well, someone has broken the rules, fouled him, and caused him to stumble, and in II Tim 2:5 he urges Timothy to endure hardships and to keep from becoming tangled in worldly affairs, reminding him that a man (athlete) is not crowned unless he runs according to the rules.

Other metaphors employ language referring to the training done by athletes (e.g. Acts 24:16) and to umpires that supervised competition, urging believers to “let the peace of Christ “umpire” in their hearts (Col 3:15). He contrasts athletes’ corruptible crowns, with the much more enduring crowns of righteousness for believers (I Cor 9:24-25). In Phil 4:1 the thought of reward is more prominent where Paul describes the Philippians as “the wreath” with which he himself will be crowned if they stand firm, for they will be living proof that he had neither run nor trained in vain. In 2 Tim 4:8 he uses terms for both reward and umpire in stating that “there is laid up for me (as on the ivory and golden table at Olympia) a wreath of righteousness, which the Lord, the umpire who makes no mistakes, will award me on that day.” Chariot racing, not running, is thought to be the sport envisioned in Philippians 3:13-14 where Paul talks of forgetting what has gone on before and “straining forward” to what lies ahead, “I drive on toward the finishing line.”53

The gladiatorial contest forms the basis of yet other metaphors. In I Cor.15:32 Paul claims to have fought wild beasts in Ephesus, reminding his readers that he would not have done so if he didn’t believe in the promise of eternal life to believers. He appeals to Philippian Christians to “stand firm” in one spirit, contending together as one for the faith of the gospel, thought to be a clear reference to gladiatorial contests. Like those thrown into the arena to face the beasts, Christians are condemned to fight for their lives (or their faith). And, in Phil:1:30 he describes himself engaging in a “contest” with his readers, and again, in 4:3, speaks of certain women who had once fought side by side with him in the cause of the gospel, all thought to be drawing on gladiatorial imagery. Commentators have also pointed out subtle references to gladiators in Philippians 1:28, Romans 3:6; 15:30, and 2 Cor 4:8-9.54

On the basis of Paul’s plentiful athletic metaphors it is tempting to assume that he was predisposed to the sports of his day. The definitive work on Paul’s athletic metaphors remains Victor Pfitzner’s St Paul and the Agon Motif, a painstakingly thorough examination of the literary, historical, philosophical, and theological context in which Paul’s athletic language was used. Pfitzner contends that the athletic terminology had long lost any direct association with athletic contexts by the time it appears in Paul’s epistles. In this respect it would not be unlike metaphors used by contemporary sports fans and critics alike. “Make sure you touch base with me (baseball),” “I struck out” on the exam (baseball) “Do an end run” around the committee (football), “go an extra round” (boxing), or “take a rain check” (baseball) all derive from sports, yet they are so far removed from their original context that those using them rarely appreciate their connection to sports. The athletic metaphors used by Paul were “very much in the air” so that he undoubtedly would have grown up with them or acquired them in his discussions with street corner philosophers who roamed the Mediterranean world or perhaps in his many contacts with Greek-speaking synagogues. The metaphors were so common, claims Pfitzner, that “it is not hard to imagine that any Hellenistic Jew could have either written or understood them without himself having gained a firsthand knowledge of the games from a bench in the stadium.” Because the metaphors Paul used had long been dissociated from actual athletic experience, along with Paul’s background as an educated Pharisee who identified with the Palestinian Jews’ “deep lying abhorrence (of) Greek athletics and gymnastics as typical of heathendom…” Pfitzner concludes that “one must question Paul’s so-called love for, and familiarity with Greek sports!” Even more problematic was how Paul could have blended an image that glorified the Greek ideal of agon, with its spirit of self-assertion and human achievement, with a theological system that repeatedly underscored human insufficiency and divine grace.62

It is possible, even likely, that Paul played sports informally in his youth. It is conceivable, though highly improbable, that he maintained an interest in the public games during his ministry. In light of the pagan religious ceremonies that were part of the games, and the sharp contrasts between the atmosphere and ethos of Greco-Roman competition and Paul’s exhortation to the spiritual life, it seems more likely that he shared the largely negative views of influential church leaders who followed in his wake.


In summing up the story of Christianity’s first encounter with popular sport it is important to point out that the historical record contains no evidence of early church authorities having condemned sports played informally; the essential acts of moving, striving, contesting, and developing skill for purposes of enjoyment never came under attack. It seems likely that early Christians played an assortment of informal games prior to and following their conversion, surely as children but perhaps as adults as well. But sports made part of grand entertainment spectacles were another matter entirely. To those in the vanguard of the faith, the major sport palaces of the day were off limits to Christians. Early Christian leaders were not nearly as concerned about the effects of sport on the participants (since most weren’t Christians) as they were its effects on the minds, souls, and dispositions of those who watched. They were careful, critical observers of sport, arguably more critical than the Christian community is today. They saw how sport spectacles so often appealed to baser human instincts and softened Christian resolve against not only pagan religious sentiments but also the underlying worldview that defined the essence of Greek and Roman culture. To the early fathers, watching the games risked blurring the lines that distinguished the new faith from the old religion.

Secondly, the church took seriously its stand against sport and other public entertainments. How one integrated sports into his or her lifestyle represented a kind of litmus test for measuring Christian commitment. “It is above all things from this,” said Tertullian, “that they (the pagans) understand a man to have become a Christian that he will have nothing to do with the games.” Third, from the beginning popular sport proved to be a divisive issue, not only in setting Christians apart from their pagan neighbors, but in fomenting dissention among the Christian community as well. Early Christian leaders may have been united in the belief that the sport spectacles of the day were incompatible with the teachings of Christ, but apparently, rank-and-file believers weren’t so sure. Thus, in taking a position against sport, clerics and church authorities set themselves apart not only from the secular sports promoters but from part of the early Christian community as well. Almost from the outset it was clear that the church and the laity would be locked in a long battle over sports, and given the public’s unquenchable thirst for sport spectacles, it was a contest the church was destined to lose.